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Tolstoy Journal, July 12, 2017: “something entirely novel and strange.”

The featured image is of Ronald V. Sampson’s The Psychology of Power, which I read because I had read his Discovery of Peace, about Tolstoy’s view of war, and liked it very much. So I had to go to Houston to visit me mum (she is holding her own) and read the above on the airplane. Will eventually transcribe quotes about Tolstoy from it, also from Discovery of Peace.

I have fallen behind on my reading but will catch up. I am on page 158 of Volume XIII of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi or Chapter II of “Two Hussars.” I should be up to page 240. In other Tolstoy reading news, I have reached page 66 of the second volume of Simmons’s Tolstoy biography, page 160 of The Gospel in Brief and page 56 of Andrew D. Kaufman’s Understanding Tolstoy, which I am underlining a good number of passages in and will share here.

Just to remind myself and any new readers what I am doing here: I am reading an inherited 24-volume set of Tolstoy, two volumes a month, while taking notes here on this blog, notes on the journey through the work of Tolstoy and notes on “travel books,” that is, books about Tolstoy and his works. From these notes I hope to forge a book about my travels next year.

So far, in Volume XIII, I have read “A Russian Proprietor,” “Lucerne,” “Recollections of a Billiard-Marker,” and “Albert.” All of these stories have a common theme of a character trying to help another character(s) to get on better in life and all of them also examine the difference between fantasy and reality. The helper character wants to help either the peasants or poor musicians or someone slipping into despair, but none of them can really help the person who needs help. Because either the one in need is too prideful or doesn’t understand what the helper is after, or because he really doesn’t want to be helped. I would say from a literary point of view that “Recollections” and “Albert” are the better stories, “Recollections” being a story about gambling and hence seeming a lot like Dostoyevsky’s work. “Albert” reminded me of “Bartleby the Scrivener” but also of Gogol’s work.

And despite the preaching that occurs at the end of “Lucerne,” I really like it. From a literary point of view I realize this is a fault but from a “merely” human point of view I enjoy and am moved by it. I recall that Merton’s favorite part of Portrait of the Artist was the Jesuit’s sermon on Hell. It wasn’t mine, but I understand that aspect of Merton. I like the parts wherein Tolstoy goes all didactic; it seems to me he reaches the point in the story where moral outrage or concern is called upon to break forth from the art; not that the art is a sermon but I don’t mind a sermon or two breaking out within a story. And I like even his simpler fables that illustrate a moral point.

In “Lucerne” moral outrage is the outcome. The narrator has wined and dined an itinerant musician because a fairly large group of rich tourists, mostly Englishmen and women, has listened to him with what seems genuine emotion and then turned away without giving him a penny. This outrages the narrator who goes in search of the musician and brings him back to the hotel. The musician is rather discomfited by all the attention and tries to get away but the narrator forces his concern on him. The narrator also comes close to beating up the hotel staff for condescending to the musician and he sits with the musician in the dining room next to a snobbish English family who get up huffily and leave.

Here is the narrator letting loose his moral outrage:

” ‘ On the 19th of July, 1857, in Lucerne, before the Schweitzerhof Hotel, in which were lodging very opulent people, a wandering beggar minstrel sang for half an hour his songs, and played his guitar. About a hundred people listened to him. The minstrel thrice asked all to give him something. No one person gave him a thing, and many made sport of him.’

“This is not an invention, but an actual fact, as those who desire can find out for themselves by consulting the papers for the list of those who were at the Schweitzerhof on the 19th of July.

“This is an even which the historian of our time ought to describe in letters of inextinguishable flame. This event is more significant and more serious, and fraught with far deeper meaning, than the facts that are printed in newspapers and histories. . . . [there follows a list of massacres occurring round the world and other foreign news]. But the episode that took place in Lucerne on the 19th of July seems to me something entirely novel and strange, and it is connected not with the everlastingly ugly side of human nature, but with a well-known epoch in the development of society. This fact is not for the history of human activities, but for the history of progress and civilization.”

The narrator does end on a more lenient note, of God embracing both the noblemen and the beggar, but you still remember the sting of the initial judgement when you read the story. That last line about “the history of progress and civilization” reminds me of Sampson’s third book which I just received in the mail, Progress in the Age of Reason. Sampson’s outlook, as far as I understand it, is a pacifist position heavily influenced by Tolstoy. He says that there is one natural moral law, that we all know it–so far he sounds like Lewis–but that this law is unitary, that is, the same law should apply across the board of both public and private spheres. That there should be no division between public and private morality. States should not be allowed to do wrong things for “reasons of state” but should be judged by the same standard a solitary human being would be.

More to come.


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